Digging in sandy soil with a broadfork is easy. In rocky clay, it’s not nearly as easy. It’s basically an extreme sport in clay.
It’s not impossible, though. That bed took me perhaps 45 minutes to prepare, mostly because it takes more stomping on the broadfork than I’m used to, plus I had to bust up the big clods.
Sure, it’s work – but it’s work that needs to be done, especially for root crops.
Why Dig a Garden Bed?
The major reason: loose soil. If the soil structure is open and crumbly, plant roots do a lot better. They can dig deep and get the minerals and water they need without having to force their way through hard earth. You’re doing the hard work first to make their lives easier.
Digging garden beds even works well in sand, as I discovered back in Florida.
When your plants have easier lives, they’ll spend more time making delicious things for you to eat.
The Initial Feeding
When I prepare a garden bed I rake in compost right at the beginning. In the past I’ve also used amendments such as lime, blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal and kelp meal – all of which are excellent additions to the soil.
Here, though, I can’t get most of those things, so I stick to compost, biochar and sometimes seaweed.
You can see a recent bit of bed prep in this video:
You don’t need a ton of organic matter in the soil. A few percent is fine. I sprinkle perhaps a half-inch cover of compost on a newly dug garden bed and rake or turn it in before I plant. The plants really appreciate compost and it lasts longer and releases its nutrition over time, unlike chemical fertilizer.
When preparing this garden bed I used my Back to Eden chicken run compost, which is probably hotter than compost from a typical backyard pile. The plants don’t seem to mind, though.
Here’s how I made that compost:
Planting a Bed of Sweet Potatoes
This is easy as shoo-fly pie.
Just cut some vines and stick them in.
You can start your own sweet potato slips with store-bought sweet potatoes if you don’t have any vines currently growing on your homestead.
Use the toothpicks and a jar method – or – even easier – start potatoes growing by burying them shallowly in a pot of soil, then cut vines off of those to plant.
I use a stick to dig holes, then plant the sweet potato cuttings a few inches deep into them.
They’ll look like they’re going to die for a few days, then they’ll recover as the vines root. Sweet potatoes are tough.
“China has pollution problems, and one Italian architect could have some answers.
The Chinese city of Nanjing is getting a Vertical Forest, a set of two buildings stylised with around 1,100 trees and a combination of over 2,500 shrubs and plants.
But it’s not all about how it looks: The Nanjing Towers will absorb enough carbon dioxide to make around 132 pounds (60 kilograms) of oxygen every day, an official press release claimed. China’s Vertical Forest is scheduled to be completed sometime next year.
“Vertical Forest is a model for a sustainable residential building, a project for metropolitan reforestation that contributes to the regeneration of the environment and urban biodiversity without the implication of expanding the city upon the territory. It is a model of vertical densification of nature within the city that operates in relation to policies for reforestation and naturalization of large urban and metropolitan borders. The first example of the Vertical Forest composed of two residential towers of 110 and 76 m height, was realized in the centre of Milan, on the edge of the Isola neighbourhood, and hosts 900 trees (each measuring 3, 6 or 9 meters) and over 20.000 plants from a wide range of shrubs and floral plants distributed in relation to the façade’s position towards the sun. On flat land, each Vertical Forest equals, in amount of trees, an area of 7000 m2 of forest. In terms of urban densification the equivalent of an area of single family dwellings of nearly 75.000 m2. The vegetal system of the Vertical Forest aids in the construction of a microclimate, produces humidity, absorbs CO2 and dust particles and produces oxygen.
Biological habitats Vertical Forest increases biodiversity. It helps to set up an urban ecosystem where different kinds of vegetation create a vertical environment which can also be colonised by birds and insects, and thus becomes both a magnet for and a symbol of the spontaneous recolonisation of the city by vegetation and by animal life. The creation of a number of Vertical Forests in the city will be able to create a network of environmental corridors which will give life to the main parks in the city, bringing the green space of avenues and gardens and connecting various spaces of spontaneous vegetation growth.
Mitigations Vertical Forest helps to build a micro-climate and to filter dust particles which are present in the urban environment. The diversity of the plants helps to create humidity, and absorb CO2 and dust, produces oxygen, protects people and houses from the suns rays and from acoustic pollution.”
I like the idea of forest buildings. I imagine you could really “push the zone” on the south-facing wall of a building like this, as they would be located inside the heat sink of surrounding urban development.
The next step would be to grow edible plants and trees, though you’d have to be careful about avocados falling 500 feet and turning some sidewalk stroller’s brains into guacamole.
Paul Gautschi of Back to Eden fame has a method of composting where he throws food scraps and garden waste into his chicken run and lets the birds eat and till and manure it down. Then he takes a wheelbarrow and sifter out and harvests the rich compost/soil in his chicken run and throws it on his gardens.
I have done the same for the last few years and find it works wonderfully.
In a video I posted this morning you can see how I’m using this Back to Eden garden method to make plenty of the good stuff.
It’s really simple and doesn’t take much thought. I’ll share how I do it, then you can tweak in your own gardens however you like.
Back to Eden Chicken Run Composting
The basic idea: throw everything out in the chicken run (or inside the coop, if it has a dirt floor like ours does) and let the chickens turn it into compost.
If you have free-range birds without a dirt-floor chicken coop, this method is a non-starter. I have found that letting birds totally free range is more trouble than it’s worth, as I’ve lost many birds to predators, plus finding where they lay the eggs is a total pain.
Ideally you can balance “outside time” with safety, as keeping birds locked up in a coop all the time is sad… but finding eviscerated corpses of birds dragged behind the barn is also sad.
Currently we keep our setting hens locked up in the coop for the safety of their eggs. Mothers with young chicks are also kept inside. The other birds are free to wander during the day, but if they start sleeping in the trees and not coming back to the coop, we lock them up for a few days to reset them.
But… back to chicken run composting.
Here’s step 1:
Throw Compostable Items to the Birds!
Yard “waste”, weeds, kitchen scraps, picnic remains… if it’s organic and will break down in a reasonable amount of time, throw it to your hens.
When you prune trees you can take the entire pruned branches and toss them into the chicken run. When all the leaves fall off, pull the branches out again and throw them into a hugelkultur mound, turn them into biochar, or use them for rocket stove fuel.
The leaves will be turned into compost by your birds, and then you can use that compost in your garden.
This mother hen and her chick started tearing into the leaves and garden “waste” as soon as I dropped it in the coop:
Chickens want to work for you if you give them a chance.
Make a Compost Sifter and Start Sifting
I used to have a compost sifter made from pressure treated wood with hardware cloth nailed on it. Now I just use a bent piece of hardware cloth. Redneck, but it works.
Throw the dirt and compost from the floor of your coop or chicken run onto the hardware cloth and sift it through. This keeps the rocks and big pieces of junk out of your garden, though if you were going to use this chicken run compost for fruit trees you could just shovel it into a wheelbarrow and skip the sifting.
I love handling dirt so I enjoy sifting.
You can see various twigs and debris left behind by the birds. Eventually everything woody will break down, so I don’t take the little twigs out of the run – I just leave them to be turned and manured by the chickens until they’re compost.
Wrapping It All Up
The compost I harvested from the chicken coop in today’s video was the remains of a thick layer of leaves and grass we raked up during a yard clean-up day. The inside of the coop was mostly 6″ deep in it and you can see how thin the layer is now.
I harvested a total of two five-gallon buckets of compost from the coop when all was said and done.
Five gallons of compost was spread across my garden beds and the remaining five gallons I set aside to make potting soil.
The Back to Eden garden method, in its whole, works best when you have access to lots of cheap or free wood chips. I do not, so, like most of my gardening, I borrow the pieces that work for me and throw out the pieces that don’t.
Heck, I can’t even follow a recipe in the kitchen without changing it, let alone do so in my garden.
I love the Back to Eden chicken run compost method… it’s amazingly easy and creates rich compost in only a couple of months. I like it so much that I’m going out this afternoon to load up the bottom of my chicken run with a bunch of fresh organic matter.
The chickens enjoy it and I don’t have to spend any time measuring C/N ratios or turning a pile. Win, win, win!
Finally – I posted a video of Paul Gautchi using this method a few years back. You can see that post here.
I spent part of Saturday harvesting cinnamon and processing it.
One of the most delicious spices in the world is cinnamon – and, joy of joys, we have a cinnamon tree growing on our property – and I figured it was about time to harvest some and share the process with you.
Unlike most spices, the portion of cinnamon we use in cooking is the bark. Cinnamon sticks
Harvesting cinnamon requires taking down a good-sized branch or trunk, removing the gray outer bark, then peeling and drying the delicious inner bark.
We harvested enough cinnamon for a year’s worth of cooking (at least), though now that we have such a ready abundance I might start finding new things to use it for.
Most of the trees I see around here are in the 25′ range. The one I harvested from was maybe 20′ and is probably a younger tree.
Essentially, cinnamon harvesting is just a matter of cutting down some branches or the entire trunk of a tree.
There seems to be a time of year that it’s better, so to figure out when that was I just spied on my neighbors and waited until one of them harvested some. Heh.
Cinnamon is propagated from seeds and I’ve seen baby trees scattered here and there all around the woods here. When I get my own land I hope to dig some saplings up and plant a hedge of them that I can cut as needed for a regular supply of cinnamon.
Also according to Infogalactic, one common method of harvesting cinnamon is “growing the tree for two years, then coppicing it, i.e., cutting the stems at ground level. The following year, about a dozen new shoots will form from the roots, replacing those that were cut.”
That would work well for me. The hard wood left after harvesting the bark can then be used for charcoal production. You can also use cinnamon leaves to make cinnamon tea, which is pleasant and good for you.
The rough outer bark of cinnamon isn’t flavorful or pleasant to eat, so that is scraped off.
You want the inner layer, which you can see is red-orange:
It gets a lot redder as it oxidizes and dries.
After scraping off the outer bark, score and peel off the inner bark in sheets.
It’s crumbly and if there are any knots in the wood they’ll break the bark as it peels, but don’t worry about getting it perfect.
Chances are you’re going to grind the stuff anyhow.
Here’s some of the peeled cinnamon drying out:
Harvesting and processing cinnamon is a great afternoon project.
For those of you who aren’t in the tropics, cinnamon is a tropical tree but can take some cold. Chances are good that you can grow them up into north Florida or so with some protection, especially when the trees are young.
Cinnamon’s cousin the camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) has invaded that whole range, so that may be a good precedent.
Interesting experiment: I wonder what the inner bark of a camphor tree might taste like in cooking? Or as an herb?
Someone go peel a branch and let me know! I would totally be doing that RIGHT NOW if I still lived in Florida.
I get asked now and again when to harvest pumpkins or how to tell if a squash is ready to pick.
Well, on Friday I posted a video demonstrating when to harvest a pumpkin or winter squash:
Though those aren’t the best demonstration specimens, I covered the basics in the video.
I know for most of you this is EXACTLY the wrong time of year to share a post like this as pumpkin season is long gone. Perhaps it will help you later this year, though, once you all thaw out and get your gardens going.
Here’s a quick overview on how I know when to harvest pumpkins and winter squash.
Is the Stem on the Fruit Still Green?
Then don’t cut it. That means the fruit is still receiving nutrition from the main vine.
If the Pumpkin Stem is Yellow or Brown, Cut it!
The fruit is no longer receiving sap from the plant, so it’s time to cut that pumpkin or winter squash off and bring it inside.
If the Main Vine is Dead, Harvest That Squash!
Sometimes, as was the case with at least one of the pumpkins in my video, the stem on the fruit may still be green but the main vine is withing away and dying.
Chances are nothing else is going to happen, so cut the fruit and bring it inside.
If the Fruit is Damaged, Use it for Soup!
If there’s a rotten spot on your pumpkin or winter squash, chances are it’s not going to keep well on the shelf. Go ahead and cut it, then use as soon as possible. The flavor won’t be as good as a “cured” pumpkin or squash, so I like to remove the damaged portion, peel and seed the fruit, then use them for soup.
How to Harvest a Pumpkin or Winter Squash Properly
It’s important to leave a bit of stem on your pumpkins or winter squash when you harvest them.
I usually leave about an inch. I don’t pluck the pumpkins from the stems or break them off, I cut them nicely.
In the video I’m using these Felco picking and trimming snips (which I love for taking cuttings and precise trimming work). Those have been a go-to tool for me since I bought them for my old plant nursery. Great little snips.
Any pair of pruners will work, though. Just be gentle and don’t accidentally break the entire stem off the fruit. That leaves an entry for decay microorganisms which can lower the storage time of your squash significantly.
Taste Takes Time
Unlike most vegetables which are at their best when fresh harvested, pumpkins and winter squash improve in flavor when stored for at least a few weeks.
I like to pick on a dry day, if possible, then let the fruit dry a little further on the back porch. Once they’re good and dry, I bring them inside and set them on a shelf to “cure” for a bit.
Yesterday I shared how I made potting soil. I also posted a video recently on how I used primitive charcoal making to create biochar I could add to the thick clay as nutrient bunkers.
When you want fast charcoal, it’s hard to beat a raging fire, but that’s not the way to get the most charcoal or the highest-quality coals.
In my neighborhood the local farmers make cooking charcoal like this:
That fire ended up burning for two weeks or so, then they harvested bags and bags of charcoal from inside of it.
This fellow uses a similar method I would love to try:
One of the preferred charcoal woods around here is Gliricidia sepium, but locals also use cinnamon, sea grape and even mahogany, though the latter is preferred for lumber instead of charcoal.
The finished charcoal is hard and rings with a high “clink” when struck. It’s beautiful stuff.
Almost any wood can be made into charcoal, but softer woods aren’t particularly good for cooking as they burn up too quickly in a fire. Instead, I use those for biochar.
Why Primitive Charcoal Making? Why Not Make Something Fancy?
If you have a biochar kiln you can convert everything to char, even weeds, but it’s hard to do that when you’re raking coals around.
Really, I’m totally low-tech in my gardening and homesteading. I even failed at tower gardening. I’ve learned my lesson. If it’s complicated and requires electricity, plumbing, welding, solar, etc. – I’m going to screw it up.
Instead of just telling you all how lousy I am with tech, I should probably spin it and brag about how “sustainable” I am. Or claim I’m “embracing the rich simplicity of the past.”
But no, I’m just good at breaking things. Heck, I barely even drove my new van and it broke.
Fortunately, I can make lots of charcoal by gathering branches and open burning, or digging it into the ground and covering for a slow burn that gets me a lot more higher quality charcoal.
I’m planning to grow hedges of Gliricidia for this kind of primitive charcoal production once I get a new homestead. That will be a ton of fun. I love chop-and-drop.
I want to do the same with Inga trees in an alley cropping system.
Sounds like you made the right choice. Possible outcomes:
1. You get to harvest what you’ve planted, without moving. 2. You have to move, but get to harvest anyway. 3. You have to move, and someone else moves in … you’ve given them quite the potential house-warming present!
Doesn’t sound like there’s any real downside to me.
Heck, I’ve planted fruit trees across multiple previous properties at this point. People are harvesting and enjoying fruit now that they didn’t have to plant. No loss.
On Wednesday after finishing up some office work I took to the gardens and brought the camera with me.
You can see how I use a garden bed as a compost pile for a period of time, then rotate to another bed. I first did this on a lousy, sandy bed back in North Florida. The crops had done horribly in it, so I thought “hey, why not make THIS space the compost pile instead of piling up compost somewhere else?”
I just pile up compostable materials and let them rot down over time.
If you do this in a garden bed, all the good nutrition that seeps out of the compost goes right into the soil beneath where your crops will find it when you later rake away the compost and plant the ground. Worms are also drawn to that area by the delicious rotting kitchen scraps.
Look at this beautiful stuff!
After letting a bed rot down like this for 6 months to a year, you can then plant right on top… or steal some of that compost for another project, making sure to leave a bit behind for the crops to come.
I sifted out about 3+ gallons of good compost from this bed using a piece of hardware cloth. You can still see some eggshell pieces, or as Rachel calls them, “slow-release calcium”:
This finer compost gets used when I prepare beds, make potting soil and as food for my potted fruit trees.
The rougher chunks that don’t make it through the screen get thrown into the new compost/garden bed. I also chopped-and-dropped a self-planted moringa tree I’ve let grow there.